Blooming Where She's Planted

By Brad McEwen

For a great many residents of the Good Life City any mention of current Albany Area Chamber of Commerce CEO and University System of Georgia Regent, Barbara Rivera Holmes, likely brings to mind an image of the consummate professional—poised, polished, and in full command of any room where she happens to be going about the business of promoting the Albany community she loves and doing any and everything thing in her power to foster a healthy environment for business and industry.

In fact, as I consider a great many of our local leaders—those current movers and shakers and those whose past efforts helped guide us to present day—I struggle to find many who seem more at home taking center stage and sharing her thoughts and ideas than my friend Barbara. Whether it’s the calm confidence she exudes when addressing a crowd, or the intense spark that flashes in her eyes whenever conversation turns to the future fortunes of Southwest Georgia, it’s clear Barbara is sharp as a tack, a deep thinker and a master communicator.

Traits shared by many a great leader.

But for a select few who’ve had the honor of getting to know the sometimes guarded Chamber chief away from the confines of the public sphere, those mental pictures are only one aspect of the devoted wife, mother, sister and daughter who has spent the better part of the last 20 years laying down roots in Albany and staunchly defending what she considers to be a beautiful community with far more to offer than many (even natives) give it credit for.

When folks like me—who first came to know this kindred spirit over a decade ago during our time in the Leadership Albany Class of 2010—think about Barbara, we also see things like how she can’t hide her inner nerd when conversation turns to heady topics like the historic impact of Punic Wars, state of the art manufacturing processes, or the proper conjugation of certain Spanish phrases.

We think about things like “potion day,” her husband David’s playful description of those days at home when Barbara’s business suits and pencil skirts have been replaced by overalls and sandals and her focus is not on new initiatives to promote small business, but rather on blending the various essential oils and other ingredients she receives regularly from an online apothecary to make homemade hair and skin products and other assorted goodies.

Or we picture her crouched under the hot Georgia sun, tending to her backyard garden or cleaning the family chicken coop (both of which are maintained in a quiet and unassuming suburban neighborhood in central Albany).

Or we simply imagine her kicked back in a comfy chair, glass of wine in hand, and a broad smile on her lips—content to simply be living another day of the adventure that is a life well-lived.

“I love life,” Barbara told me during a recent interview for a long overdue Beyond the Bank on one of the community’s greatest champions. “I love learning. I love trying new things and meeting new people and discovering. I love discovering. I just love life.”

It might be a touch difficult for some in the community, only know the public Barbara that they see at Chamber events or read about in the Albany Herald, to imagine her creating her own special hair de-tangler, pulling weeds or dropping Alex off at school like countless other young mothers. But the truth of the matter is, there really is only one Barbara and it’s that total package who’s responsible for working tirelessly, no matter the setting, for the betterment of Albany and its citizens.

“Overall, I think I’m not a different person in my private life,” Barbara said. “I’ve got pretty clear boundaries overall as a person. I’m a private person, but I’m very much a transparent person. I’m not a different person professionally than in my personal life. Except I don’t wear Birkenstocks to work and in my personal life I do.

“I’m not an over-sharer, period. I mean, when I was growing up, I remember calling my mom after school and she’d say, ‘well, how was your day?’ I would say, ‘it was fine.’ And she’d be like, ‘you’ve got to give me more than it was fine.’ So, for being a communications professional, I’ve always been a little bit more succinct in my personal descriptions.

“But I don't think it's been a challenge for me, simply because I know who I am,” she continued. “I know where I come from. I know who my family is. I know what we believe and what we stand for. I know what my support system is. And, I'm pretty self-aware. I know what my strengths are. I know the areas that I need to continue to work on. And so, I'm not trying to hide anything, or I'm not trying to hide who I am, or be different than either of those things. So, there isn't conflict between who I am in my personal life, and who I am in my professional life.

“I mean I'm still the same person; I feel like the same person on the inside.”

In fact, Barbara firmly believes that the varying aspects of her personality, and by extension how she navigates her home and work environments, help to balance her out and make her a stronger person in all areas of life.

“I think who I am personally, makes me a better professional, and who I am professionally, makes me a better person,” she said. “And then the people that I've met professionally, the skills that I've gained, the challenges that we experienced, they've made me a better mother, a better spouse, a better daughter, I hope. I think I'm better in my personal life because of my professional experiences and then I think I'm better in my professional life because of my personal experiences. So, they don't live in conflict and they don't live in isolation. They are symbiotic, because they're the same person.”

And that person is a rich, complex, passionate and driven one, who will proudly tell you she is the product of the past—informed and molded by those who came before her and provided her not only with the opportunity to live a full life, but also with the skills and tenacity to build a community and shape the future.

Frankly, there’s simply no talking to, or about, Barbara, for any length of time, without the subject turning to her proud heritage and the earnest and humble gratitude she has for her forebears.

“My family, I would say, shaped my entire life,” Barbara said. “We were always very close in everything we did. We always did everything as a family. And not just with our family, but with my uncles and aunts and my cousins and my grandparents. That’s just how we were raised.

“So, family is, really, for many people I suppose, a huge part of who I am and where I am as well.”

Throughout the course of our interview, Barbara spoke at great length about the impact her family has had on her life, and it was apparent from the start, that she sees the emphasis placed on education in her household as one of their greatest gifts to her.

“Education was very important in my family,” Barbara said. “My parents and grandparents understood how important it is to have a good education and that was the expectation for me and my brother and sister.”

That early emphasis on learning, as it turned out, also matched well with Barbara’s inherent thirst for knowledge and her inner need to understand life’s narratives, and ultimately leading her to study communications and journalism in college.

“I’m an avid reader,” Barbara explained. “I love to read and I think storytelling is very powerful.

“And my family had always been newspaper readers and book readers, so it was just part of how I grew up. And that’s how I got into journalism itself.

“I communicated often through high school, and even before that, I excelled at the written piece,” she continued. “I was always a good student, always had all A’s. Even in math, I seemed to do fine, but writing is really what I loved. So, as I was finishing up in high school, I did take some creative writing classes in high school that really threw me even deeper into the writing area. But I really love chasing information.

“I love figuring it all out. I love puzzles. And journalism, for me, was all of those things combined into a field that you could study in school. And that was marketable 20 years ago.”

Of course, following what has been a theme throughout her life, once she settled on journalism, Barbara wasn’t content to simply chose a course of study and follow it to its natural completion—she went after her passion for information gathering and storytelling with gusto.

“I did dual enrollment and AP (advance placement) starting my sophomore year in high school,” Barbara said. “So, when I went to college, I started as a junior. I had done all of my core in high school.

“So, I started as a junior, my freshman year, and I still took 15 hours every semester because I had a full scholarship—and academic and music scholarship—so I had to have four years of college. So, I went in as a junior and I went, really, straight into my major.

“And it was really neat because, like I said, I took a full load every semester, so I took classes in everything. That was a lot of fun for me. I graduated with 170 credit hours or something.

“But it was awesome.”

Additionally, where it's clear her upbringing in a household that valued education paid dividends in Barbara finding a subject tailor-made for her natural hunger for information, that upbringing also had a huge influence on her choosing a double major in Spanish—her family’s native tongue (if not necessarily her own).

Obviously with a given surname of Rivera, it’s easy to guess Barbara’s Latin heritage. But it’s only after spending some time talking with her that one starts to understand how important that heritage has been in shaping the woman she is today.

Where most people have some passing knowledge of the history that has shaped their family’s journey, Barbara is keenly aware of how her family’s experiences have impacted the way she views her world. And it’s those experiences that ultimately factor in to the ferocity with which she works to create a better community here in Albany.

“I grew up in very much a Latin household,” Barbara explained. “My mother and her family emigrated from Cuba through the Cuban Revolution in 1961. My mother was 6 at the time. My grandparents fled with three children 6 and under, and a suitcase for each, and $5 for each, leaving behind their families, businesses, and wealth.”

Of course, having grandparents who emigrated from a foreign country to the United States is certainly not unique (my own grandfather was actually born in Italy and I have distinct memories of my great grandfather Gerald F. McEwen and the mesmerizing British accent he brought with him from the U.K). But the circumstances of her family’s journey to the U.S. clearly had a profound effect on the direction of Barbara’s life.

“I mean they were a wealthy, professional family,” she continued. “They leave all of that behind. They make it to Miami where my grandfather, who ran multiple businesses as part of our family’s business empire (back in Cuba), got a job as a janitor.

“They go through Freedom Tower, which is still there and at which their names are engraved—it’s like the Ellis Island of Cuban immigration—and they settle in Miami.”

No doubt the experience of having to leave behind a successful life in Cuba to essentially start over in a new country directed the family’s future and held solidify pride in their heritage, but so too, as Barbara pointed out, did the reception her mother’s family received upon arriving in the States.

“They were very well-taken care of by the American people,” she said. “My family are staunch patriots.

“When I was growing up, we always talked openly about my family’s history, the Cuban Revolution, different types of stories, and the people—our Latin heritage.

“My grandfather’s father was in the Spanish Army,” she continued. “My grandmother’s uncles fought in the Spanish-American War, liberating Cuba from Spanish dictatorship. So, there’s lots of fighters in my family who fought for the things that they believed in.”

And the same holds true on her father’s side of the family, which traces its roots to Puerto Rico—where Barbara siblings were born.

“My father, his family is Puerto Rican,” Barbara said. “He was actually born in New York, in the mid-40s in Manhattan. Back then you had a lot of cyclical immigration between Puerto Rico and New York and he was actually born in New York and then came back to Puerto Rico as an infant where he was raised by his grandparents who adopted him.

“We moved when I was 7 from San Juan to Kissimmee, Florida.”

In fact, Barbara said that her own immigration experience also had a profound impact on her early development.

“My parents spoke English,” she said. “My brother, sister and I didn’t. We all went to Catholic military school in San Juan; it was a very prestigious school. I was just starting my English classes there, but we moved. I started 3rd grade in Florida when I was still 7. Puerto Rico started early and I had an early birthday—well for schools anyway—so I was a year ahead of all my peers. But I didn’t speak English when we moved here.

“I remember trying to communicate with our neighbors and I couldn’t, so my parents wouldn’t let us watch Spanish language television when we first got here.

“I did Intensive English (I think it’s ESOL now) for about the first six months of 3rd grade,” Barbara continued. “You would be in your regular class and then they would take you out and then you would do all your English and then go back to class.

“So, by the end of 3rd grade I was fluent and so were my brother and sister. I was 7, my brother was 5 and my sister was 4.”

While having to learn a new language in such an intensive setting at a young age was a challenge for Barbara and her siblings, that story also follows a narrative that seems to repeat itself throughout her life.

As challenges and difficulties arise, Barbara simply digs in and methodically goes to work using her mind and the lessons she learned at home about perseverance and hard work to clear whatever hurdle she’s facing.

“When you’re growing up and you’re hearing these stories, they’re a part of your family,” Barbara explained. “It wasn’t until many, many years later that I realized the foundation that really had for me.

“My grandfather (Napoleón Quintero) always said, ‘There’s but one path and it’s forward.’ And he would always say, ‘luchando pa’lante’ (which) means ‘fighting forward.’ If you get tired, you take a rest, but you don’t give up. And if you have to find a different path, then you do. But you’re still on a path forward.

“So, I work hard and I always feel like, ‘Look, if my family could live through the Cuban revolution, reestablish themselves in a foreign country, and re-emerge and redefine their lives forward, then there's really nothing that I can't do because I'm not being asked to survive a socialist revolution, to uproot my family, to leave everything that I've known behind.

“That’s my family’s influence. That’s my family. The high points of it. We were always just very close. And Latin culture, of course, is very familial period. And vivacious and joyful. Family is just a huge part of my life.”

And while it certainly makes sense that the world view and life skills she honed under her family’s tutelage helped prepare her for any curveballs life has thrown her way, as we were talking I couldn’t help but wonder about her decision to create a life in Albany, GA—which seems pretty far removed from the Latin world of her youth.

I really couldn’t help but wonder, not only about how she ended up in Albany, but also what has led her to become so active in this community over the last several years and how she remains so fulfilled in all aspects of her life here.

But when considering some of those important lessons about overcoming obstacles and finding success through hard work, it started to make sense that why she has built a true home in Southwest Georgia.

Like most folks, her initial decision to come to Albany was born out of necessity, as her husband David is originally from the area. But really, that relationship isn’t necessarily what has kept her here.

She said, in fact, that early in their relationship—having reconnected a year after a brief introduction at her graduation—David offered to relocate to Kissimmee, where Barbara had spent her formative years and had returned to after graduating with BA’s in Journalism and Spanish from Florida Southern College and then spending the following year continuing her studies in Spain.

But Barbara, it turns out, had other thoughts on the matter.

“The day of my college graduation, I met a guy David Holmes and it turns out that he was one of my very close girlfriend’s brothers,” Barbara said. “And so, about a year after graduation we met back up. I graduated in April of 2001 and I re-met David in March of 2002 via his older sister.

“I had just come back from Spain and she was stationed at Fort Stewart in the Army, so I went up to her house and David came over, and a few other people—it was St. Patrick’s Day over in Savannah.

“So, I re-met David there and (we) got married seven months after that. Now when I say I met David the day of college graduation, I shook David’s hand and that was it really. I’ve known his whole family because his sister and I are sorority sisters. I knew the other sister. I knew the parents. I even knew the grandparents because they came up for grandparents’ day.

“(But) anyway, David offered to move where I was living, which is Kissimmee where I grew up,” she continued. “I was working as the recreation coordinator for the Osceola County Board of Commissioners. I was coordinating the recreation programs for the county, their first summer program.

“David offered to move to Florida but I like new experiences and I said, ‘Well, I’ve never lived in Georgia, so I’ll come up and we’ll live in Georgia.’”

And not only did she relocate to Albany, she immediately dug in and began using her talents to help strengthen and improve her new home—despite having to gladly adjust to a new and unfamiliar culture.

“I was appreciative of coming to Albany,” Barbara told me. “I came on the heels of having been in Spain for a year, and having moved back home to the Orlando area, so it was different coming to Albany, and an experience, really. It was not just a different landscape, but there truly is a different culture in Albany. And I come from an area that is very much—a Latin household first of all—very much a patriotic, very American, prideful household, and very Latin in its tongue, in its music, in its practices, all of those things.

“But despite sort of having to find my way through Albany, to meet people, and to establish friendships and relationships, I also found it a really welcoming place. And the kind of place where people were open with me in different ways and welcomed a lot of dialogue and discussion.

“It was interesting to have both of those experiences, and really recognize all those nuances while you're going through them,” she added. “But in reflecting, it was sort of this dichotomy of making a home and a life in a place that is unfamiliar, and then also making a home, and a life, and a career in a place that is welcoming to that. So, it was good overall, but it took me a minute.”

Although by her own admission, ‘it took a minute’ for her to get settled in, it’s clear her personal history, life skills and educational background proved to be great tools in helping her to quickly acclimate and find her way.

Having a naturally inquisitive nature and earnest desire to observe and learn, as well as a degree in Journalism, also allowed for a great opportunity to immerse herself in the Albany community, while also staying true to her family’s ethos of working hard to make your way in the world and provide for your family.

“I called the Albany Herald on my 23rd birthday and I ended up talking to [former long-time Herald Editor, colleague and friend Jim] Hendricks and I said, ‘I’m moving to Albany. I have a journalism degree and I’d like to know what positions you have available. I worked at the newspaper in college all four years—features, news, design, photography, the whole bit.’

“And so, they gave me an interview and about a month later I got the job on the copy desk.”

Over the next few years Barbara’s role at the Herald expanded to include covering multiple beats, which in turn allowed her even greater access to the behind the scenes machinations of the community and a chance to learn about the major players and important issues from a unique vantage point that she clearly relished.

“It kind of goes back to my observer role, right, where I proved my work at the newspaper,” Barbara explained. “I started on the copy desk and then I moved to features. I covered health care, I covered education, I covered government. When I worked Saturdays, I covered crime and the police beat. And ultimately, I landed over in covering business and economic development.

“And I just loved it. Like I loved learning about all the things that we have in place. I love learning about what is being accomplished, what we were trying to accomplish (as a community).”

Additionally, Barbara pointed out, her role at the paper also allowed her to see things that maybe other residents—even those with far more tenure in the community—maybe weren’t able to see. And, what she witnessed really impressed her, even if then, like today, many in the community couldn’t see past certain shortcomings.

“I remember telling friends that were critical of so many people back then, ‘I report on these things every day; I talk to these people and nobody gets it right all the time. But what I can tell you is that the people, they're trying. Like they're trying to do the right thing, and they're trying to make this community better,’” Barbara explained. “I, at least, had the advantage of, from a professional side, seeing that people really were trying to do what's right for this community, and to bolster it.

“And even now, I absolutely still get comments of, ‘We're from here,’ or ‘we transferred here,’ or ‘we came here for this, or that, or the other, and it's a really great community. And A, we didn't expect it. And B, we're still surprised that some locals don't really appreciate how vibrant it is.’

“And I think that's a natural thing. People are their own worst critics generally. And as a community, we’re pretty hard on ourselves. I think self-analysis and self-criticism can be helpful in many ways because self-awareness is a very important attribute. But we can be overly critical, and that can have a debilitating effect on our community in terms of investment—whether that's a capital investment, or passive commitment, or investment, or seeing opportunity.

“So, we, as citizens, really need to be mindful,” she continued. “It's somewhat like keeping a gratitude journal, right? Like if you start to keep a gratitude journal, suddenly, through that experience, you’re made significantly more aware of really one or two things in your life. And it's the same thing with the community.”

Although her time at the paper clearly gave her an advantage when viewing the totality of the community, she said it also provided a way to marry her passions and gifts in one place.

As she explained, her love of journalism was fueled by her love of storytelling, but that career path also fulfilled another aspect of her personality—he internal desire to figure out how things work and how disparate things can often come together to form a more complete whole.

“I loved stories and I still do,” she said. “And it’s funny because everything in my mind, whatever I’m doing, it’s still a puzzle. And I still organize it like I would a news story. I can hear a story and I can see the holes and I can hear a story and I can see what voice needs to be added to round it out, complement and substantiate (it). It’s just how my mind works really.”

Journalism, and the connections and relationships that are required to truly develop a beat and make sure all angles are represented, also exposed Barbara to things that would inspire her to make her next substantive career change—stepping out of the role of observer and into a position where she felt she could have even greater positive impact on her adopted community.

“I realized that we had so many good things, and we were not really telling our (own) story,” Barbara said of her decision to leave the Herald and transition to a position with the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission back in 2008. “We were falling short on the telling the story part. We were really not even able to see what all the stories are.

“And so, I decided that I really wanted to be a part of this team that was making a difference. And certainly I believed very strongly in community journalism, and the impact that that has. So, it wasn't like I wouldn't make a difference if I was at the newspaper. That was not it.

“But I wanted to be involved in a very different way. I wanted to be an active participant with an objective voice, but also a part of people.”

That Barbara—who at that time had been living in Albany long enough to know that it isn’t always an easy place for a non-native to assert themselves and actually impact change—would be willing to shift from more of a fly-on-the-wall, objective observer to an active role in the public eye, also speaks not only to her character, but again to the family history that has informed her entire life.

Much the same way she has always drawn strength from the words of wisdom imparted by her grandparents to keep fighting forward, Barbara also looks to her lineage for inspiration in forging a fulfilling, balanced life for herself, her husband and her daughter here in Albany.

“It took me a minute to find my place, let me say that,” Barbara said somewhat delicately. “And I don’t think that’s unique to this community, and not unique to me. But you're coming out of college, and a little travel, and you settle into a new place, you're newlyweds. It's going to take a minute to be readjusted a lot of things. But I have felt fortunate that this is where we landed.

“And I’ve always believed, fly if you want to, whatever. But wherever you're at, bloom where you're planted.

“And that doesn't mean that you're planted forever. But wherever you are, whether it's just a landing spot, or it’s where you want to ultimately stay, just bloom where you're planted.

“That's what we've done. Albany has a lot done for us, and I'm very appreciative of that.”

And, from my vantage point as a kindred observational spirit, who also tries to positively impact my adopted home in whatever small ways I can, Barbara Rivera Holmes has truly done a lot for Albany. And if history is any indication, that will continue for years to come.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

Click here to catch up on previous Beyond the Bank Features